What’s happening to volunteering? It’s an oversimplification to say volunteering is becoming increasingly institutionalised. However, something is definitely afoot.
In this post, I’m going to try and break down what this process of institutionalisation of volunteering might mean.
I think it’s possible to identify different levels so I’m going to present six possibles.
Whatever the case, what’s happening to volunteering is complex.
Institutionalisation covers a lot of ground. It’s important to see it as a continuum. In the middle of the process it’s hard to categorically say whether this or that kind of volunteering is “institutionalised”. At the extremes, it tends to get clearer.
Institutionalisation is also a gradual process. It’s been developing over many decades, if not centuries.
Looking at the kinds of volunteering around today, the picture is clearly very mixed. The extent to which institutionalisation of volunteering is happening, probably depends on more immediate factors like the nature of the volunteering in question and the scale on which the volunteering is taking place.
Setting out the levels can be useful to help us better understand what’s influencing the development of volunteering today.
1. Networks – modes of giving (non-financial)
A key sign of institutionalisation is the shift away from giving to people we know, such as with one-to-one giving or communal giving that’s rooted in specific communities. With institutionalisation there’s a distinct shift towards giving to people we don’t know, through intermediaries like an institution such as the church, the state or an formally constituted organisation. In fact, as this aspect of giving has become more institutionalised, we’re often giving to people we don’t know, even after we’ve volunteered. For example, a volunteer giving blood will rarely know the specific individuals they are helping.
- Give to people we know (communal or one-to-one giving) – direct reciprocity (level of a community)
- Give to people we don’t know (via institutions, state, organisations) – indirect (generalised) reciprocity (level of a society)
This dimension of giving to strangers is an important feature of the institutionalisation of volunteering. Many definitions of volunteering deliberately exclude giving to relatives, the effect of this is to focus volunteering on the more institutionalised type of giving.
In the Giving Green Paper, we highlighted a number of schemes across the country which facilitate and promote sharing between people who may never have met before – for example, time banking and complementary currencies. [Giving White Paper - Cabinet Office, UK Government]
Mutualism and self-help which by most definitions are recognised as volunteering, tend to be based on a model of giving that’s more aligned to direct reciprocity. Close-knit, smaller scale communities where givers and receivers know each other and reciprocate in turn, are a far cry from the more institutionalised volunteering of giving to strangers, that’s behind most common usage of the term ‘volunteering’ today.
Indirect giving: service user and provider
There’s a growing assimilation culturally, of this principle of a more generalised reciprocity. The growth of this principle is connected to the development of volunteering where people frequently step forward to help those they don’t know. We don’t even expect to meet or get to know those we help directly. And if we do get to know them, we often assume there’s not a direct gift relationship between the service user and provider.
It’s ironic, but this change is often framed by the language we use. When it was introduced, the term ‘service user’ jarred with the notion of gift exchange where both participants are giver and receiver, both are users and providers.
It’s the norm that the giver doesn’t expect the receiver to be able to help them in the future and reciprocate. The rise of the concept of social capital is an attempt to quantify this proliferation of generalised reciprocity, driven partly by the development of volunteering.
Institutionalising reciprocity: filling the tangibility gap
The growth of giving on the web has reopened this discussion about these different kinds of reciprocity: direct and indirect, in human relationships. Technology seems to offer new ways to render reciprocity more tangible, something policymakers aspire to. When a reciprocal relationship is direct the impact is usually very tangible. Tangibility has become an issue because of the push to more indirect forms of reciprocity, behind this is the trend for greater institutionalisation. It feels like we turn to institutionalisation to fill this tangibility gap.
Online communities are opening up new opportunities to forge ‘giving’ networks across and beyond societies in new and different ways. Much online giving in this way has challenged the presumption that giving will become increasingly institutionalised. The rise of the language of participation presents a renewed challenge to the presumed dichotomy between user and provider.
Online communities either provide new ways for givers to connect with receivers and reciprocate, or it enables gift economies to scale without the need for formal and traditional intermediaries such as a charity, state agencies or religious entities.
2. Resources – financial capital
The next level is understanding the growing importance of financial resources in enabling volunteering to take place. Volunteering that’s financed through free (libre) donations (without strings attached) is not institutionalised. Often these donations are small gifts in kind, where it’s the volunteers themselves who pick up the costs incurred as part of their volunteering. However, the greater the operational costs and the bigger the need for financial certainty, the more institutionalisation is on the cards. It becomes a cycle: growing volunteering, requires more resources, which in turn require higher volunteering outputs, which down the line need yet more resources.
Volunteering at scale often requires an investment that needs to be resourced by mechanisms such as:
- grants that are formally agreed,
- service contracts that are commissioned,
- services that are purchased/transacted, or;
- funds restricted to a particular charitable purpose
While these costs are diffuse and low level, volunteering activities remain largely uninstitutionalised. However, as costs and scale of demands increases, so does the pressure to institutionalise the volunteering doing the heavy lifting. Moreover, there’s often pressure institutionalisation creep from those entities that agree to bankroll the development of volunteering.
- Volunteering as an end in itself – financed by free/libre donations not linked to actions (generalised)
- Volunteering as a means to an end – financed by commission, contract or transaction – linked to actions (particular)
Over time, these different models of funding, whether by grant or by commission, seep into the way we talk and think about volunteering. For instance, describing volunteering as a currency (see complementary currencies as referred in the Giving White Paper), a type of gift exchange or means of achieving an organisation’s mission. These developments are a direct response to the changing nature of the way volunteering is financed. This growing requirement to finance volunteering at scale, has led to greater institutionalisation.
Scaling and distribution of volunteering
Once again, the web presents opportunities to rethink this model by reducing the costs of scaling volunteering, distributed giving and linking the giver with receiver. These elements effectively counter the trend towards approaching volunteering a means to an end. If the same scale of volunteering impact can be achieved through distributing the workload across a network of volunteers, there’s the prospect of new funding models where the burden of funding volunteering can also be distributed. Currently, the ways in which these models can be applied to volunteering is being explored, but it offers a possible route to funding high-impact volunteering in a less restricted, less institutionalised manner.
Where volunteering activities are primarily financed by libre donations that are unrestricted, volunteering can afford to be primarily an end in itself. However, as funding begins to become increasingly tied to more and more specific outcomes and deliverables, so volunteering becomes primarily thought of as a means to an end, and takes on the feel of greater institutionalisation. Institutionalisation, after all, comes about largely because it is a means to an end.
3. Aims: rights and duties
Volunteering as a gift relationship is built on the twin ingredients of freedom and impact: positive personal freedom and beneficial social impact.
The motivation for volunteering can be explained in terms of rights and duties. On a very simple level, volunteering balances the right of the individual to be able to freely give as they wish, with the acceptance of the duty to bring about beneficial social impact. All volunteering activities are a mixture of these two principles in varying amounts.
- Volunteering as a way to give as you wish (rights-based)
- Volunteering as a way to achieve socially beneficial outcomes (duty-based)
Volunteering that’s low level and on a short time scale, may often not be able to demonstrate tried and tested impacts. However, they have enormous value in that they are based on people freedom to respond to needs they identify and wish to tackle. At the same time, it’s this kind of volunteering that tends to be less institutionalised.
On the other hand, volunteering activities as they become more established and embedded in a community, engender a duty to maintain and support this work on the part of its volunteers, where the beneficial impact is a matter of record.
An example of a voluntary activity that has become thoroughly institutionalised over many years after becoming a key civic duty is jury service. In ancient Greece, jurors were selected from volunteers. Today, it is barely recognisable as a volunteering activity, given the sanctions available to the state to enforce it. However, it is still a service with no pecuniary reward to the individual carrying out their duty and responding to their jury summons. The juror takes an oath to give “a true verdict”. As such, this is still a giving activity of sorts, but one so weighted towards duty that it has become profoundly institutionalised. Despite its historical roots, it is no longer volunteering in any meaningful sense.
History is full of these kinds of examples where voluntary action has emerged out of the liberty to respond to a social need, and once established has become a question of service and civic duty. From the police to firefighters, from the military to medics, from holders of political office to religious leaders. Each have very distinct histories. All though show how volunteering can become institutionalised over time, by making the transition from individual responses to immediate need, through to an acceptance of an established duty.
4. Ethos: culture of volunteering
As volunteering becomes more institutionalised it is increasingly possible to codify and articulate the ethos and moral values central to it.
- Amateur: uncodified ethos, unorganised labour, unrestricted access to the labour market (no regulated training and qualifications)
- Professional: codified ethos, organised labour, restricted access to labour market (regulated training and qualifications)
The term volunteering is value-laden. However, these values whilst they remain uncodified are a matter of individual preference and public debate. Once they become codified, there is a body that is credited with the authority to adjudicate and make substantive decisions about what that ethos is. It’s no longer simply recommended good practice, it’s enforceable practice.
As institutionalisation progresses, this authority restricts access to the labour market by enforcing sanctions and upholding quality standards. For example, the General Medical Council can decide which medical practitioners are registered, while Ofsted can decide which childminders are registered to provide childcare. Professional bodies can organise labour to leverage political and economic power to achieve its strategic objectives. Qualifications and training are no longer simply added value, they become the minimum requirement to entry.
At this point volunteer management has a body of knowledge and different professional codes exists around the world, there are no professional qualifications that serve as a minimum requirement. There are more and more people who see themselves as volunteer managers, knowledge of ethical codes and professional standards is not high.
5. Structure: formal and informal volunteering
How volunteering activities are structured is one of the most obvious and explicit forms of the institutionalisation of volunteering.
- Informal: individuals, groups and unconstituted associations (subject to general law)
- Formal: (formally constituted) organisations, charity, state, corporations, companies (subject to specific law)
There is a clear range of structures starting with individuals on their own and groups that are completely unconstituted, right through to other structures such as charities, companies and state agencies that are formally constituted and legally recognised. These more formal structures provide legal and bureaucratic frameworks in which volunteering takes place. Formal volunteering is in this sense closer to being institutionalised.
6. Need: Services
Volunteering provides services addressing the needs of the people using these voluntary services.
- Particular: volunteering that addresses the needs of a specific community
- General: volunteering that addresses the needs of all society
There is a range of these needs from those providing ‘particular’ services, to others providing ‘general’ or ‘universal’ services. Volunteering activities have traditionally been understood as adding value to public services. The difference has to do with the how widely those services are understood to hold moral responsibility to those in need and be publicly accountable to them.
Services that aim to provide particular services to specific users, have a limited moral responsibility to a specific community. However, over the last 50-60 years in the UK, public services have traditionally been delivered by the same agency (the state) that accepts this broader moral responsibility to all those in need across the whole society (whether that extends just locally or nationally).
An example might be the difference between the UK Neighbourhood Watch network and the police. Neighbourhood Watch provides a service in particular communities where people volunteer. The police service takes on a more general responsibility across all society in the UK. While Neighbourhood Watch might be able to reasonably argue their accountability is restricted to where they’re present, the accountability of the police is much broader, i.e. they’re an institution. The greater this moral responsibility and accountability of voluntary services extends, the closer it comes to institutionalisation. Another interesting case in point is the relationship in the UK between the RNLI’s (voluntary) search and rescue responsibilities and the responsibility of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (state).
The policy ideas floated along with the Big Society have courted controversy precisely because they seek to shift the moral responsibility of voluntary services from limited sections of the community, to taking on moral responsibility for the needs of society as a whole. For example, while a voluntary services might in the past seek to add value by filling the gaps not met by public libraries, now voluntary services are aiming not just to fill the gaps, but to take over the public library itself. Once it does, it takes on a wider moral responsibility for all users needs. In addition, volunteering is positioning itself as a means to an end and angling for commissions to deliver specific services. This all adds up to greater institutionalisation of volunteering.
So how can we identify institutionalised volunteering? Why would we want to?
This is not about oversimplisticly labeling institutionalised volunteering as bad, and volunteering that isn’t institutionalised as good.
It’s about fighting for a balanced approach to volunteering that includes both volunteering that’s institutionalised and volunteering that’s not. Neither is necessarily better than the other.
In practical terms we need to encourage:
- Policymakers to address volunteering in the round, and not just focus on an institutionalised outlook of volunteering and giving
- Researchers need to spend more time to understand and analyse the complex relationship between volunteering and institutionalisation
- Those working and volunteering in the voluntary sector need to develop networks and resources that span the whole of the volunteering sector
- Those in the media need to discuss and communicate a more rounded version of volunteering that includes both the non-institutionalised and the institutionalised aspects of volunteering
Towards the state’s sphere of influence
Different volunteering projects, programmes and initiatives may fit one or more of the six levels of institutionalisation outlined above. However, it’s interesting to note how these factors stack up. In particular, how as volunteering leans towards institutionalisation, it’s also in many ways more within the sphere of influence of the state.
For example, with institutionalised volunteering the following factors prevail:
- Volunteering that’s oriented to a mode of giving that’s based on indirect reciprocity
- Volunteering that’s financed through exchange/transactions such as commissions, agreements or contracts, and as such, is developed as a means to achieving a specific end
- Volunteering that’s well established and fosters volunteers primarily by appealing to their sense of duty or service
- Volunteering that’s developed within clear codified professional values and ethos
- Volunteering that takes place within the structure of formally constituted organisations
- Volunteering that aims to deliver services with a general remit and a sense of moral responsibility for the needs of society in general
Institutionalised volunteering is no better or worse than volunteering that’s not institutionalised. The reason for understanding this distinction is to ensure we maintain a broad approach and an open mind when considering different types of volunteering.
All too often, it’s the more institutionalised volunteering that attracts debate, resources and thinking. As a result, it’s this volunteering verging on institutionalisation that dominates when we think about developments in volunteering. In particular, it is certainly worth looking at whether this is due at least in part to the increasing influence of the state on the development of volunteering in the UK.
If we allow this one-sided view of volunteering to dominate, ultimately we’ll become more fragmented as a sector. If we learn to include these alternative approaches to volunteering, the development of volunteering in the future will be all the more rounded for it.